After 97 years, a forgotten British massacre uncovered

After 97 years, a forgotten British massacre uncovered

The British unleashed ruthless violence over Mappilas to quell the rebellion in south Malabar taluks

A mass grave in Adhikarathodi, Melmuri, where 11 bodies had been buried after the massacre. (Photo courtesy: Sameel)

Ninety-seven years ago on this day, the British army massacred 246 people in a small village in the Malappuram district of Kerala as part of a crackdown against the Mappila rebels. 

The Mappila Rebellion was part of the non-violent Khilafat Movement led by Mahatma Gandhi and the Ali Brothers in 1921-22. The Mappila Muslims, who reside in the south Malabar region, had taken the movement seriously and engaged in combat with the well-equipped British army. 

Ali Musliyar (Courtesy: Wikimedia)

The Mappila warriors, under the leadership of cleric Ali Musliyar and Variyam Kunnath Kunjahammed Haji (V K Haji), captured the taluks of Eranadu and Valluvanadu from the British and established their own rule.

After a short period, the British suppressed the rebellion savagely by letting loose the Gurkha Regiment, Dorset Regiment etc. According to official data, more than 2,300 people were killed and over 45,000 rebels were imprisoned in different jails across the country (the numbers are five-fold higher in unofficial records). 

The rebellion had a huge impact on the region as well as the country. Mahatma Gandhi distanced himself from the rebels stating that the rebellion was just "an outburst of fanatics". Several works, both critical and in support of the rebellion, have been published, but most of them are silent about the British crackdown on the rebels.

Unmarked graves

Two bodies were buried in this grave. (Courtesy: Sameel)

This bloodbath, which was largely forgotten, came to light after a three-year-long research by a journalist. Illikkal Sameel, who is with a Malayalam media organisation, spent four years documenting the history behind unmarked graves in a village located 3 km from the Malappuram district headquarters. In a detailed report published in Madhyamam Weekly, a Malayalam magazine, Sameel has illustrated the brutality of the British towards the Mappila, mostly innocents, including the old and the sick, to terrorise the rebels who had driven the mighty English force away from the region for months.

In an ironic twist, Sameel, who resides in a nearby village, got to know about this forgotten historical episode four years ago from a friend, K Ashraf, who is pursuing his PhD from Johannesburg University, South Africa. Ashraf informed Sameel about the undocumented graves dating back to 1921 present in the area.

Initially, Sameel could find only five graves at Adhikarathodi in Melmuri village but nobody had any details about those buried there. After tracing the descendants of those buried, Sameel obtained information of 40 people from nine graves. All the graves had more than one body buried and among them one had upto 11 bodies.

"Malabar struggle is a well-researched topic from Kerala's freedom movement and several scholars are still trying to explore more aspects. But I could find no trace of this particular massacre in any of those works," Sameel said. 

"In a casual conversation, a researcher in Malabar history mentioned Dorset Regiment and their involvement in suppressing the rebellion. I dug further to get details of the regiment and their expeditions, that was also futile," Sameel explains.

From an octogenarian physician Dr Thorappa Muhammed, Sameel got to know that the number of people killed in the massacre was more than he could count. Muhammed told him that the number would go above 200 and challenged him to look at official British documents for more information.

Connecting the dots

"Most of the documents are not publicly available now, so I started flipping through the contemporary chronicles of officials. Among them, I went through a book of the  Personal Assistant of Kozhikode Collector Mr Gopalan Nair's 'The Moplah Rebellion 1921', which was published in 1924. In that book, he has just mentioned that the Dorset Regiment met some rebels near Melmuri and it led to the killing of 246 people on October 25, 1921," said Sameel.

A book by the then police inspector of Malappuram, R H Hitchcock, describes every moment of his life as a British officer in Malappuram. 

"The book is no more in print, hence, I got a photocopy of the book from one of my friends and a professor at Malappuram Government College, Dr Jameel Ahmed," said Sameel. 

Another historian, Dr M Gangadharan, has cited British officials G R F Tottenham and C T Atkinson in his work on the Malabar struggle. Sameel found Tottenham's book to be the most valuable as the author had added all the official communications, notes, commission reports etc., that were available during the rebellion.

"I stitched all these details together with the verbal accounts of various residents and stories of survivors to write this report. It was a painful effort," said Sameel.

Earlier efforts 

In the early 2000s, an article published in 'Souvenir' as part of the Pookkottur War anniversary had made some efforts to cover the massacre.

Some young enthusiasts and writers had also made videos regarding this massacre and related artefacts still available in the area. The information for these efforts led Sameel to more graves.

'Girls were murdered'

"Dr Thorappa Muhammed had mentioned graves dug by Muslim women as men were unavailable to conduct the funerals," elaborates Sameel. "I found two such graves in the latest expedition. Unlike the usual six-feet deep Muslim graves, these were only two feet in depth," he said.

"As per some official documents and the accounts of descendants of the dead, a significant amount of the people killed in the massacre were innocent. Family members told me about men, including aged and sick, being forcefully dragged out of their home and shot. Two girls who were trying to protect their fathers were also shot by the army," Sameel added.

Two feet deep grave. (Courtesy: Sameel)

Punished for links?

Apart from a telegram communication of the officials mentioning the short-engagement between Dorset and rebels in Melmuri after the Mappilas were attacked, there is no other evidence to lead us to the motive behind the massacre. 

"A large gang reported last night four miles north-west of Malappuram. Operations are undertaken against them by Dorsets, Artillery and armoured cars. Enemy met in jungle west of Melmuri opposing our troops there and in the houses, refusing to come out when ordered to surrender and offering continued opposition resulting in 246 rebel casualties," reads the telegram.
Sameel assumes the British unleashed violence in that particular place due to the presence of a big chunk of Ali Musliyar's students and giving shelter to V K Haji when he was in underground.

He rules out any connections to the alleged Mappila brutality, including forceful conversion of non-Muslims. "In my research, I could not find any credible information about the forceful conversion. Rather, there are mentions of participation of lower caste people in the rebellion," Sameel claims.

"If such forceful conversions had happened, where are the later generations of those people. But till now nobody came forward claiming as the descendants of 'those people'," says Sameel. 

"The story of forceful conversion was to demonise Mappila warriors and justify the British brutality. Even the leaders in the freedom movement believed this story and ignored the ruthless suppression of the rebellion," he added. 

In his article, Sameel gives an account of assistance from Thiyya family, lower caste Hindus, to extinguish the fire set on homes of Muslim neighbours by the army.

The course of rebellion changes

The entire course of the rebellion changed after the massacre as more rebels surrendered. Also, the popular support to the rebellion had also diminished. The British created an impression among the people that none, despite being active or inactive in the rebellion, would be spared. 

"This was the British strategy to terrorise the rebels as well as sympathisers of rebels to give a strong message: 'either support British or die'," Sameel added.

The British officials themselves accepted that all they killed were not rebels, but they cheered the increase in the number of submissions as a result of the army act.

Cover page of Madhyamam Weekly.

"In the interval before they (Dorset Regiment) came into action, there had been several encounters with the rebels and on October 25th the Dorsets had killed 246 Mapillas in the Melmuri area. Not all of these probably were active rebels, and the encounter seems to have had a considerable moral effect, for shortly afterwards petitions began to be received from 'amsams' in the neighbourhood of Malappuram offering submission," Under Secretary reported to superiors. (Tottenham, 39)

In the correspondence of F B Evans, I US, Special Civil Officer, he wrote that Malappuram Kazi with thousands of men and women pleaded for amnesty after the massacre. In continuation, he regrets about the bloodbath, saying, "I think this may be put down as the effect of the Melmuri show on the 25th when no doubt a certain number of comparatively innocent people were unavoidably killed."

Complete cover-up

British and upper caste historians deliberately neglected this episode for their benefits, alleges Sameel.

British officials tried to cover up this brutality to suppress the rebellion as part of maintaining themselves from further reactions from Muslims from other parts of India and to avert the global scrutiny of the war crime.

Sameel demands an open apology and reparation from the British government for their brutality on innocent people.

"The massacres the British army unleashed as part of a crackdown on the rebellion in Malabar, including the one in Melmuri, was one of the deadliest violence in India when one looks at its intensity. There were families without men, as all men were killed or taken to prisons. Those families need both an apology as well as compensation. The Indian government should pressurise the UK for this," Sameel said. 

For generations to come

Illikkal Sameel

After publication of the article, Sameel received several calls from different corners detailing other similar massacres. He is planning to write a book with more descriptions and related events. 

There is also a plan to produce a documentary on this. Malayalam filmmaker and director of hit movie 'Sudani from Nigeria', Zakaria Muhammed, has agreed to produce the documentary under the banner of his production house - Cross Border Camera. 

Sameel hopes the history books will feature this episode in the coming days. "The episode of the massacre was known among the victims' families, till the last generation. The present generation is not aware of this. I hope my work will instil curiosity among them," Sameel added.